If you would have told me six months ago that our world – including the US – would shut down the global economy out of concern for human health, I never would have believed you. America, the land of consumerism and entertainment, forgoing profits to save the lives of the elderly and the most vulnerable? Never.
And yet, here we are.
Schools are closed, workplaces have laid off employees or transitioned to working remotely, and stay-at-home orders have been issued around the world. Within a matter of days, we left our normal lives behind and went into quarantine. While there have been a few exceptions, we isolated ourselves willingly and peacefully to protect ourselves, our families, and the most at-risk members of our society. This is the first time we have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes.
The act of our world coming together and putting everything on hold in the face of COVID-19 has set a new precedent that I didn’t think was possible. We united around a global need. And it’s giving me hope that the human race can unite around the larger context of COVID-19 and the biggest challenge of our existence: climate change.
Today is Earth Day 2020, and for the first time in years, I’m feeling a change in the air. With less stimuli and distractions, our world is admiring nature with newfound interest. Daily walks to appreciate spring flowers and breathe fresh air have become sacred. And it’s true – the air is indeed cleaner right now. In New York, pollution is down by 50% compared to last year according to the BBC. New Delhi, which often has 20 times the safe limit of air pollution prescribed by the World Health Organization, is now witnessing blue skies as shown in NPR. And Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project (GCP) and Stanford professor was quoted in Newsweek saying that as a result of quarantine, “I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5 percent or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War II.”
These are reasons to celebrate. But we cannot overlook the fact that as soon as stay-at-home orders are lifted, everything will go back to how it was before if we don’t make radical changes to how we inhabit this earth. Our response to COVID-19 was radical. We placed collective well-being above individual desires. And our response to climate change must be the same.
As with many things in life, when we step back we see just how interconnected our existence is with our planet. To date, human activity has altered close to 75% of the earth’s surface, according to the United Nations. Let’s consider how COVID-19 began: “With respect to the disease itself, part of the challenge ahead is understanding where such diseases come from, because the health of our planet plays an important role in the spread of zoonotic diseases, i.e. disease originating from pathogens that transfer from animals to humans. As we continue to encroach on fragile ecological ecosystems, we bring humans into ever-greater contact with wildlife. Further, illegal wildlife trade and illegal wet markets are not infrequent causes of such diseases. Around 75 percent of new and infectious diseases are zoonotic and, in fact, about 1 billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from these diseases.” (United Nations Environment Program)
When we understand COVID-19 as part of the larger issue of climate change, we see what we need to do to prevent future outbreaks. The United Nations recommends the following to decrease the emergence of diseases transmitted from animals to humans: decrease deforestation and other land use changes, decrease illegal and poorly regulated wildlife trade, decrease the accelerating rate of agriculture and livestock production, decrease antimicrobial resistance, and dramatically reduce climate change.
I leave you with this. We have shown through COVID-19 that we are capable of change. We have proven that we can act in service to our long-term global interests instead of individual desires. We have shown that we can work remotely, survive without paper products, drive less, connect with loved ones without hopping on an airplane, take classes from home, and live a simpler life. If we can do this, we can fight climate change.
It’s 2020, and our world is finally quiet. Through the silence, we hear a whisper, a glimpse of what life could be like if we put our earth and our health first.